From the author: This story is a combined homage to two different myths. It’s a blending of the classic kraken legend and the ever-popular Cthulhu mythos. First published in Bloodstones anthology (ed. Amanda Pillar, Ticonderoga Publications, October 2012).
I don’t really know where to begin, but it all started with a drink and a bet, as is so often the case. Usually things never work out quite as the drinkers and gamblers would expect or hope, though I doubt anyone could have foreseen this. I’m sure my employer never did.
Working for Lord Selwyn Gascoigne started as a dream job. “I don’t want a bloody staff, Rebecca, I want a Man Friday who knows everything and you’re just the woman for the job!” Of course, he had a staff too. But the dream job quickly degenerated into a labour of grinding teeth and forced smiles.
I’d thought the employ of a real Lord, a member of the British aristocracy, would be all international parties with fascinating people and access to the secrets of power. It turned out to be a lot of juvenile, ignorant bigots celebrating each other, with open contempt for ‘the common man’. But it paid well. My skills were often tested beyond the merely challenging and I maintained hope that I would gain exposure to things that might help my own path, be it life, career, financial or a combination thereof. So I stuck it out, managing my Lord’s affairs like the first class PA he told everyone I was.
Gascoigne’s problems started at a dinner party during the Football World Cup. His house was packed with frocked-up nobility ― their teeth preceding them into every conversation ― who talked about things that made no difference to real people. A blueblood by the name of Jeremy Hancock hollered for quiet during the brandy-soaked after-dinner conversation, turning up the television as he did so.
“Look at this!” he cried.
Numerous wealthy eyes turned. The screen showed an octopus in a tank. In the water with it were two plastic tubs, lids concealing a tasty mussel. On the front of the tubs were flags, one the Spanish national standard, the other that of the Netherlands; finalists in football’s biggest competition.
“This damned thing has been predicting all of Germany’s games successfully,” said Hancock. “Now it’s going to pick the winner for the final.”
Someone else scoffed. “Predicting what exactly?”
Hancock didn’t take his eyes from the screen. “They say he’s psychic. Whichever food he chooses first is his prediction. He’s had a hundred per cent accuracy so far this World Cup.”
Gascoigne shouldered his corpulent way through the people, brandy swilling in his glass. “Bloody nonsense,” he said, voice blustering like a stormy day. “How can a bloody octopus be psychic?”
“It’s picked Spain!” Hancock shouted, ignoring the host.
“A hundred per cent, you say?” Gascoigne asked, eyes narrowed.
Hancock flicked the volume down. “If he’s right this time, it’ll be eight from eight. I’m placing a big bet on Spain right now.”
Gascoigne barked laughter. “Bloody rubbish! You’re betting on Spain? I’ll bet you a thousand pounds they lose.”
Hancock laughed. “Excellent! I’ll take that bet.” He pulled his phone from the inside pocket of his tailored jacket and headed out to the veranda, chatting animatedly.
Gascoigne watched the octopus for a long time, eyes narrowed in thought.
I knew the phone call heralded some form of disaster the moment I heard the plummy voice. “It’s Jeremy Hancock. Put Gascoigne on!”
I tapped on my employer’s door, waited the required four beats, then went in. “Jeremy Hancock on line one for you, sir.”
“Righto.” He snatched up his receiver and stabbed at a button with one meaty forefinger. “Jezza, you big poof! Calling to gloat?”
I closed the door and returned to my desk. I was about to hang up when something stayed my hand. Nervous of making any sound, I lowered my ear to the handset lying on my leatherbound ink blotter, holding my breath.
“... told you so, didn’t I?” That was Hancock.
“So Spain won. Pretty easy fifty-fifty guess on the part of the bloody octopus.” My Lord’s derision dripped from every word.
“And I’ll be making an extra thou from you, old chap! Ha ha!”
“Yes, yes. Well done. Don’t gloat, you sound like a peasant.”
Hancock laughed again. “It’s remarkable! Eight from eight is more than just chance.”
“It’s unusual,” Gascoigne said. “But hardly remarkable.”
“Well, I think it is. I plan to make an offer for that octopus.”
“Certainly. I want it for my own. Then we’ll see how psychic it is. I’ll ask it about more important stuff than bloody football.”
Gascoigne laughed heartily. “You’re mad, Hancock, you know that? Let me know how you get along.”
The line went dead. I hung up and busied myself with booking accommodation for his Lordship in the Loire Valley, the Rhone and the Alsace. I made sure to find the classiest chateaux I could. Perks of the job meant I’d be going along, so I booked myself rooms with huge baths. Gascoigne’s door swung open.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
I felt guilty, left-over shame from listening in on his conversation. “Working on the France trip, sir. We leave in two days.” He’d only decided upon it a few days before, but that was ever his way.
He nodded, pulling on his heavy moustache. “How long are we there?”
“Seven days. You want to change that?”
“No, no, no. Can’t upset the ladies. It’s their little treat, after all.”
He really believed he was doing a favour for his friends’ wives, having me organise this trip. His own wife had died young, several years ago. I knew for a fact that all the ladies loathed the drunken blundering around the French vineyards, constantly embarrassed by their husbands’ anachronistic imperial pomposity. But it wasn’t my place to say, so I went with, “Of course, sir.”
“Keep on with that,” Gascoigne said, with a conspiratorial wink. “But I have a little side project for you.”
“Yes, sir?” I picked up my pen and notepad, expecting another crazy idea requiring detailed notes.
I wasn’t disappointed about the crazy part. “You know about that Paul fellow? Octopus, psychic, lives in Germany?”
I smiled. “Yes, sir. I’ve seen him in the news.”
“I want him.”
“You want the octopus, sir?”
“Yes, I bloody do. Make it happen. Bear in mind that Hancock is trying to get it as well and he mustn’t succeed, nor must he know I’m after it. Get me that octopus, Rebecca, whatever the cost. Money is no object, all right? There’s a bonus in it for you.”
I let my notepad sink onto my lap. “Certainly, sir. I’ll get onto it.”
The negotiations heated up very quickly. Paul’s owners were happy to ‘retire’ him for the right price, but there were apparently several interested parties. I didn’t get much chance to enjoy the French wine trip; every bit of spare time in between organising private cellar door visits was spent on the phone to Germany, talking to agents, hiring private detectives to track the other buyers and talk them into backing out. On an ethical level I’m not proud of some of the things I do, but I am damned proud of the fact that every time I’m tasked with a job, I do it well. By the time we returned from France, the bidding for the Psychic Octopus had degenerated into an obscene war of wealth between my employer and Jeremy Hancock. I’d become nervous, as both had more money than sense.
“How much is ‘no object’?” I asked Lord Gascoigne.
“What do you mean?”
“For this octopus, sir. The owners are prepared to sell and I’ve chased off all the other competition except one, and he’s not giving in. Do you really mean money is no object?”
“Who’s this other bastard trying to buy my octopus?” Gascoigne asked stupidly. He already considered the thing his, probably had since he’d first asked me to get it.
“Your friend Hancock,” I replied.
He nodded once, his face very serious, and disappeared into his office. The light on my phone told me he was using his private line, but he wasn’t dialling Hancock’s number. It was one I didn’t recognise, which made it quite unusual.
About twenty minutes later I got a phone call from the German owners. “You are successful in your bid,” they said, happiness evident in their tone. They should have been happy; their annual income had increased by a ridiculous amount. I had no idea who he’d called or what the call entailed, but Hancock dropped the subject like a hot rock. I thought it best not to consider what someone like my employer might do when he felt cornered in a deal.
The octopus arrived with his tank and associated paraphernalia on a Thursday afternoon. Gascoigne made a nuisance of himself as the thing was set up in the drawing room. I made sure to pay attention to all the care instructions he plainly ignored. If the octopus died after all this, there would be hell to pay. And I’d be writing the cheque. I made a mental note to organise my promised bonus forthwith.
Once the delivery had been finalised the proud new owner stood in front of the tank, staring as poor Paul tried to hide himself under rocks, colours shifting to match the stone. Gascoigne crouched, hands on his knees, for a closer look. His huge belly pressed against his thighs as his bloodshot nose pressed onto the glass. He made me jump when he stood suddenly. He still stared at the cephalopod, squeezed up against the stones with nowhere to hide. “I wonder if this thing is really legit,” he said, almost to himself.
“Truly psychic!” he said gruffly.
The hairs on the back of my neck shimmied. “So, what are you planning to do now? What will you ask Paul to predict?”
Gascoigne spun on his heel, heading for the door. “Organise a soirée, Rebecca. Get everyone here on Saturday night for a dinner party. Tell them it’ll be a special event and make sure Hancock attends.”
The gathering came about with the usual pomp and ceremony. ‘Everyone’ ― the dozen couples that made the highest echelon of society in Gascoigne’s opinion ― had all responded in the positive. The guests arrived and I welcomed them, guiding them into one of the many reception rooms where they tucked into canapés and alcohol with abandon.
My employer appeared late as always and made a big show of welcoming everybody. He particularly delighted in Hancock’s presence. “You’re going to love this party, old chap!”
The guests drifted into the dining room and sat at the long oak table that had purportedly held the feasts of King Henry VIII and other notable royals.
Soup was served in silver terrines and met with hearty congratulations to the chef. The main course followed, rich with fat, wine and value. Once almost everyone had been served, Gascoigne stood, planting his hands on the table where his own plate should have been. “Dear friends,” he said, moustache quivering with mirth. “I’m so glad you could all attend tonight. You’re probably wondering where my meal is.” He paused for effect and a low mutter scuttled around the table. “Monsieur Perdue!” he yelled.
His chef arrived carrying a huge covered silver platter. He put it down before his employer. I shifted from my place near the kitchen doors for a better look.
“I want you all to meet my new pet!”
I listened to Gascoigne, but watched Hancock. I saw his eyes narrow, then widen as he stared at the mirror-like silver bell cover over the plate. He seemed to be mouthing something to himself.
“It cost a small fortune, but I gained possession of Paul the Psychic Octopus and this dinner party is in celebration of that.”
“What are you playing at?” Hancock asked, his voice strained.
My employer smiled. “It’s said that the Inca ate their enemies’ hearts in order to imbue themselves with their strength and courage. I plan to employ a similar methodology.” He grinned broadly.
Hancock shook his head. “You can’t be serious!”
My Lord removed the silver cover with a flourish. Paul, whole and char-grilled, sat on a bed of lettuce and tomatoes, steaming gently, his skin a patchwork of pale grey and brown scorch marks. “I’ll eat this blighter and be psychic myself!” Gascoigne’s belly heaved with laughter.
Hancock stood, outrage on his face. “You bloody fool! You know I wanted that octopus and you pull something like this? You think this is a joke?”
Gascoigne sat, picked up a knife and fork. “Not a joke at all, old chap,” he said, though his face betrayed his amusement. “A scientific experiment. If there really is something special about this octopus, I want it in me.” He plunged his cutlery into the carcass of football’s biggest star and proceeded to eat.
Faces around the table were a mix of horror, disgust and amusement. Except Hancock. He just fumed.
By the time Gascoigne neared the end of his very expensive dinner his face glowed red, grease slicked his chin and his eyes betrayed a deep discomfort. But he forced the meal down until the entire unfortunate cephalopod had been consumed. He grinned at his horrified guests, particularly the furious Hancock, and the party wound down quickly after dinner. It interested me to see that even Lord Gascoigne’s set had limits.
His Lordship seemed inordinately pleased with himself, though his hands kept dropping to grasp his huge rotund belly, as if in pain. When the guests had gone he retired to his rooms, dismissing me to my own for the night. I prepared for bed and sat reading, wondering if the image of my employer forcing an entire octopus down his gullet, bit by quivering bit, would ever leave my mind.
I’d dozed off when around midnight the shrill report of the private line woke me. “Yes, sir?” My voice was slurred with sleep.
“Bloody agony!” Gascoigne wheezed. “I need you, Rebecca.”
I asked if I should call a doctor, but he’d already hung up. I made my way to his rooms and tapped nervously on the door.
“Yes, yes. Come.”
He sat propped up in his massive four-poster bed, which was hung decadently about with silk curtains. His face shone like a prized tomato, bathed in sweat. He clutched the covers over his swollen body. “Bloody pain in the gut, Rebecca. And nightmares!”
“Nightmares?” I asked.
“I’ve never felt so nauseated. Fetch me something. To settle my stomach and help me sleep.”
I nodded, hurrying out, questioning again exactly how all-encompassing my job description was. I returned with milk of magnesia and sleeping tablets that Gascoigne swallowed with agonised winces. He looked truly discomforted, utterly miserable. I waited until he drifted off into a disturbed, twitching kind of slumber, then left. I’m sure I awoke during the night, disturbed by screams.
In the morning, Gascoigne looked awful as he sat at the long table with dark purple bags under his bloodshot eyes, his mouth downcast in personal pity. A steaming coffee sat before him, next to an untouched plate of poached eggs.
“Good morning, sir. You don’t look well.”
“Very bloody observant, Rebecca, give yourself a gold star.”
Clearly his humour matched his appearance. “What’s on the agenda for today?” I asked.
“I’m never eating octopus again,” he said miserably.
Taking a plunge I said, “Perhaps it wasn’t so much the octopus itself as the sheer quantity?”
Gascoigne’s jowls wobbled as he shook his head. “Not at all. I’ve eaten far more in a sitting before. I’ve made a terrible mistake, Rebecca. I feel awful.”
I tried not to scoff. “Really, I think it’s just a case of excess. Indigestion.”
“No. More than that. Last night, Rebecca, they were more than dreams, terrible visions of underwater temples and reaching tentacles. Grasping hands in shadowy depths and creatures, oh my god.” He buried his face in his meaty hands.
I didn’t know how to respond. “I’m sorry to hear that, sir,” I said. “Let’s hope it passes quickly.”
Gascoigne didn’t answer, his glazed eyes looking into nowhere. I excused myself and left to get on with my work. As I shut the dining room door behind me I heard a great heaving sob, like a child unable to wake from a terrible dream.
His Lordship did not improve during the course of the day; his appearance and demeanour only worsened. I did my best to avoid him and his gruff self-pity, and those horrible glazed eyes. Repeatedly he would stare into the distance and moan. During the night his shouts and screams rattled through the house again. The following day he seemed further debilitated.
“Let me call the doctor, please,” I insisted. He refused, but by the third day, after another night of insomnia and terrors, he finally relented. Doctor Bryant arrived and I explained the history of the illness.
My employer was bedridden by now and Bryant looked quite disturbed at first sight of the Lord. “You should have called me sooner,” he said, annoyance evident.
Gascoigne screwed up his face, grey and sweat-soaked as it was. “Bah. Load of nonsense. I’m bloody poisoned, Doc. Poisoned by some creature of the Devil.”
“The Devil?” Bryant asked.
“I’ve made a terrible mistake, Doc. I’m done for.”
The doctor looked at Gascoigne’s belly suspiciously. “You’ve certainly gained a lot of weight.”
Gascoigne looked down with a wince. “My bloody gut just keeps swelling up.” He threw the covers aside, revealing his usually rounded abdomen distended to twice its normal size, the skin stretched taut and shiny. Dark veins striped the corpulent mass, like snakes frozen in jelly.
Bryant shook his head and busied himself with blood pressure tests, temperature taking and a myriad other observations. He drew blood to send to a lab and left, promising to return the next day. “Keep your fluids up and only eat very inert foods, simple carbohydrates, stuff like that,” he ordered.
My Lord snorted. “I haven’t touched a bite of food or a drop of anything to drink since I ate the bastard thing.”
The doctor frowned. “Three days without eating or drinking? Lord Gascoigne, you must at least drink water to avoid dehydration.”
“I bloody can’t! And I certainly don’t feel dehydrated. I feel like I’m drowning!”
I saw the doctor out and assured him I would try to get my employer to eat and drink. I failed in that task.
I jerked awake to a high-pitched scream, more agonised than anything I’d heard before. It came from the other end of the house, far from Gascoigne’s bedroom. Perturbed, I slipped on a dressing gown and followed the sound. The scream echoed again, muffled by something. My ears led me to the hallway and I screamed myself, jumping as the cellar door sprang open. Gascoigne stumbled out, his nightclothes soaked in sweat, his grey face drawn and exhausted. His eyes seemed more glazed than ever, staring right through me. “Sir, are you all right?”
He ignored me, staggering past as if I wasn’t there. His stomach appeared to have deflated, far past its original girth. He seemed emptied somehow, slack like a half-filled wineskin, wobbling on uncertain legs.
“Sir, can I help you? What were you doing in the cellar?”
His face swung to me, his eyes swimming. His mouth fell open like a corpse, his breath foul and tangy. He looked right through me, but spoke in a strained whisper. “Don’t go down there, Rebecca. It’s nothing.”
He staggered away, leaving me staring after him. I looked at the half open cellar door and a wave of dread washed over me. My hand shaking in fear, I grabbed the handle and pulled the door closed, turned the key in the lock, and headed back for bed.
I’d barely made two steps when I heard the front door rattling as it opened. I looked out a nearby window and saw Gascoigne climbing into the front seat of his Land Rover. The vehicle coughed into life and sped out of the driveway with a spray of gravel.
Without thinking I grabbed the keys to my own car from the rack on the wall and hurried after. By the time I’d pulled out of the long winding driveway I could see Gascoigne’s tail lights disappearing up the lane. Travelling as fast as I felt I safely could, I followed him through the village and onto the main road into London. He drove through the night, his big silhouette hunched over the wheel. It was the first time I’d ever seen Gascoigne drive himself anywhere. I’d had no idea he even could.
He headed into central London and turned left and right with seeming abandon. He finally screeched to halt on the banks of the Thames, parking across the footpath of the Embankment. As I pulled up behind him, he stepped from the car and half fell towards the railings by the river. Without pause he clambered over and held the railing in one hand.
I jumped from my car, calling his name. He paid me no attention at all. As I reached the fencing he let go and dropped from sight with a tremendous splash. I screamed his name, hoping anyone might hear, but the street stood ghostly still and quiet. I reached the concrete edge and looked down into the river. I saw his rounded back drifting out into the stream, his face underwater, arms outstretched like a crucifixion. Bracing myself to jump in and try to save him, movement caught my eye. Twisting, undulating grey shapes shivered under the surface all around Gascoigne. With quiet splashes, dozens of long, writhing tentacles broke the surface and grabbed all around his body. He didn’t even twitch as the tentacles pulled him down. He disappeared without a sound, a rippling eddy all that marked his passing.
I stared, dumbfounded.
I should have stayed. I should have called the police and spent hours explaining that my employer had gone mad after eating a ridiculously expensive psychic octopus. But I didn’t. I decided that events had finally exceeded my position description. A line had been reached.
I made the drive back to Gascoigne’s estate in the smudged grey light of dawn. By the time I reached home, wondering where my life went from here, all I wanted was sleep. I’d worry about everything else after I’d slept off the dizziness and the headache.
When I got inside, trudging single-mindedly towards the stairs, I heard a muffled banging. My body was wracked with a terrible trembling, my mind spinning, trying to hold itself together. Mechanically I followed the sound, back through the hallway to the cellar door. My stomach turned to water, my knees weak as I stared at the thick oak planks, listening to the thudding from the other side. Someone, or something, wanted out. My eyes fell to the key I’d turned earlier.
In a haze of exhaustion and terror my hand dropped to the cool metal. Compelled beyond my ability to ignore, I turned it and stepped away. The banging stopped. A heavy silence hung over the house in the wan early light. After several seconds listening to my heart beating in my throat, I watched the doorhandle slowly turn. The door swung open, revealing nothing but the shadows of the cellar stairs. A scuff of movement rooted me to the spot and a figure emerged into the hallway. Gascoigne, fat and healthy, smiling broadly, walked into the light.
My employer stood there, proud and good humoured, the over-indulged Lord in every hearty respect. Except his eyes. Looking into them ― seeing the elongated horizontal pupils twitching in beds of soft brown ― made my knees buckle and darkness swept in from the edges of my vision.
I woke in my own bed. I felt hollowed out by terror as everything from the night before flashed through my mind in vivid, movie-like detail. The phone beside me sang out, making me jump. I reached for it with one shaking hand, my heart threatening to burst through my chest.
“Rebecca!” Not-Gascoigne barked. “Good, you’re up. I have lots of plans. Get to my office as soon as you’re dressed. And tell that doctor blighter not to worry, I’m perfectly well.”
I tried twice before words would emerge from my dry mouth. “Yes, sir. Be right there.”
This story originally appeared in Bloodstones anthology (ed. Amanda Pillar, Ticonderoga Publications, October 2012).